Five Precepts the USG Should Follow to Help End South Sudan's Crisis

January 17, 2014

Kate Almquist Knopf, formerly a visiting policy fellow at CGD, previously served as USAID’s Assistant Administrator for Africa and Sudan mission director. This is the first in a series of guest posts from Kate about US policy options in response to the crisis in South Sudan. Her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 9, 2014 can be read here.

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Since violence engulfed much of South Sudan one month ago, Washington has engaged in the usual Monday morning quarterbacking over what led to today's crisis, could it have been prevented, and who's to blame that it wasn't. As important as it is to draw lessons, more important is to focus on the game ahead. Amidst all the punditry, here are five guidelines for managing the crisis that the United States should hold to even as it pursues the most urgent priorities


  1. Maintain presence. The United States must keep its flag flying in South Sudan and it must restore its diplomatic and aid staffing levels as quickly as possible if it is to make a difference in ending the crisis. This necessarily entails security risks. The US ambassador should be allowed to make the final call on when to stay and when to go. Moreover, US security posture should remain flexible and calibrated to account for the fluid situation across the country—some areas are stable, others are not. Even in those that aren’t, life-saving humanitarian work and human rights monitoring must still proceed. USAID humanitarian officers should be allowed to move around the country with the United Nations to assess needs and coordinate responses. It’s inadequate and hypocritical for the US to outsource this work and not take any risks directly.
  1. Keep perspective. It was not wrong, or “questionable logic,” to have supported independence for South Sudan. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended the longest running civil war in Africa (22 years) that took the lives of more than 2 million people and displaced some 4.6 million more. Self-determination and freedom of religion were critical to the breakthrough that led to the peace agreement. After 38 combined years of civil war since Sudan’s independence in 1956, no one should begrudge having supported the chance for freedom and self-rule for the South Sudanese.
  1. Remain persistent. The outbreak of violence was not inevitable and it can be stopped. Restoring South Sudan to a path of stability, democratic governance, and eventually development requires its leaders to cease fighting and submit to some forms of political accountability. The United States and international community must remain dogged and persistent in getting the parties to lay down their arms and move swiftly on political talks—including using targeted pressure on leaders, if need be. It must be clear that donors are not going to accede to the logic of a long-running civil war, negotiating zones of control for humanitarian access and otherwise being manipulated by the parties—including long stays at luxury hotels in foreign capitals for “peace talks.” But let’s be mindful that even the United States cannot compel South Sudanese leaders to do what it wants.
  1. Don’t lose patience. Building institutions from scratch while simultaneously undertaking a democratic transition was bound to be bumpy and to take time. It was not realistic to expect that institutions would be built in less than three years (since South Sudan’s independence in July 2011) or even in eight years’ time (since the interim period of autonomous southern government began in 2005). The best case scenario for institutional development is within a generation, and South Sudan is hardly operating with the best case scenario. South Sudan entered the interim period in 2005 with no meaningful experience of governance to draw on, very limited physical infrastructure, very few educated South Sudanese, and deep wounds and psychological trauma within and across communities. While one can continue to debate the merits of trusteeship for South Sudan, it was not a viable idea in 2005 and is not viable now. Certainly the relationship between the South Sudanese government and donors will have to change going forward, and hybrid models of statebuilding should be thoroughly explored in this regard, but ultimately South Sudanese must build the institutions that will work for their context. This will require some trial and error—as it did in the United States and, really, everywhere—and therefore patience on the part of South Sudan’s partners.
  1. Insist on core principles. It is reasonable to expect the young government to demonstrate efforts toward instituting principles of fairness, transparency, inclusiveness, and respect for basic human rights. Sadly, this hasn’t been the case since independence. Going forward, South Sudan’s international partners can—and must—insist on political processes that reinforce these principles. Even during this crisis moment, the United States and other partners could ensure that civil society or other trusted institutions, namely the churches, are witnesses to the ceasefire talks. And the mediators should broaden the political talks as quickly as possible beyond the Salva Kiir and Riek Machar camps—many South Sudanese do not belong to either side. Finally, in order to garner international support, any interim political settlement must provide for a popular referendum to pass a new permanent constitution as well as for an integrated process of reconciliation and justice—defined by South Sudanese—before another round of elections is held. Without these two elements—the restoration of some government legitimacy and tangible progress on healing and accountability—critically needed reforms of the security sector will flounder and elections will likely devolve into another bloody contest.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.